The most recent onslaught on Scotland’s farmed salmon industry has come from ‘The Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust’, who commissioned a report from ‘Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland’ claiming that the value of farmed salmon to the Scottish economy and the number of people it employs, are both massively overestimated by a staggering 251%! The success of Scotland’s aquaculture industry and its employment of large numbers in remote, rural parts of Scotland, has always rankled with the industry’s critics. They have launched attack after attack on fish farms, claiming that the production of salmon in open net pens in the sea can cause significant environmental damage. There are endless articles claiming that our salmon farms are polluting, wasteful in terms of the use of fish meal as a primary food source, disease-ridden, dangerous to consumers due to marine and microbiological toxins, hazardous to wild stocks and poor for animal welfare.

Despite their love of salmon, as the UK’s number one fish product purchased by consumers, these scare stories have chimed with the general public and proved to be fruitful fund-raising tools for the environmental NGO’s who promote them. But they are constantly frustrated when their demands to curb the industry are rebutted by ministers citing record exports of almost 100,000 tons of salmon per year worth around £1 billion, in a sector providing direct employment to 2,300 people, with thousands of additional jobs in support industries. Scottish salmon is now the UK’s largest food export. The latest absurd attempts by NGO’s to undermine these figures have been roundly condemned by the ‘Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation’, who said the report made “grotesque assumptions, unfounded claims and offers numerous unsupported anecdotes as evidence.” The Scottish government’s rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing added his own criticism of the report, saying that its timing, during the current Covid-19 crisis was “disappointing” and that the focus had to be on “supporting our remote, coastal and island communities” and “supporting the thousands of jobs and livelihoods linked directly and indirectly to fish farming.”

Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world and in Scotland we have the perfect environment for fish farming. We have an almost limitless coastline with ideal bays, lochs and sea conditions. We lead the world in the science and technology necessary for a thriving aquaculture industry and yet, with the constant stream of negativity aimed at the sector, we are in danger of starving in a land of plenty. Why is this? It is because aquaculture has become one of the most heavily regulated sectors in the entire food production industry. Scotland’s fish-farmers have to deal with over 400 different pieces of regulation, not to mention additional planning and environmental constraints, before they can reel in a single fish. 

Right now, we import almost 50% of our seafood needs when we are perfectly capable of producing this food ourselves. But red tape and the seemingly endless stream of legislation is a gift to our competitors in the EU and in China, Japan, Chile, Vietnam and elsewhere. At a time when demand for healthy fish products is rising internationally, while marine fish stocks continue to decline, the opportunities for Scottish aquaculture to lead the world in fish farming innovation and technological development are being hampered by red tape and by unfounded, negative criticism. For many people perception is reality and so long as these out-dated and erroneous images of the industry remain, it will affect the way local councils and even the Holyrood government deals with fish farms. It is time the sector fought back and they can only do that by improving their image.

Our fish farms produce products of the highest quality, in conditions of maximum hygiene and welfare, while conserving the natural resources that are required for their very existence. Of course, the industry recognises the fact that sound regulation provides protection to the consumer in terms of the quality and safety of fish and shellfish products and that consumer confidence is a vitally important issue. But the industry favours regulation, not strangulation!  The modern fish farming sector is dynamic, environmentally sustainable, clean, welfare-friendly and safe, producing a valuable, high quality, nutritionally healthy, low fat product, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, essential for human health. 

There is a need for strategic planning within the Scottish government, so that available sites for fish farms are clearly identified within integrated inland and coastal zone management structures. These would dramatically reduce the amount of time fish farmers have to spend going through the planning process and confronting local objections and environmental restrictions. Less red tape, less bureaucracy and a one-stop-shop approach to the development of new fish farms are essential pre-requisites for a successful industry. We also need more flexibility in the licensing of therapeutic agents. Scientists in Scotland are searching for the 'Holy Grail' of creating disease resistant fish with a major £3.5 million research programme currently focused on diseases affecting farmed salmon - including sea lice and gill health conditions.

Salmon farmers have also radically improved their feeding regimes, reducing the amount of fishmeal and fish oil incorporated into their feed mixes. Much of the fishmeal and fish oil comes from fish by-products, as well as from wild anchovies, which are sustainably fished in countries like Peru. Peruvians don’t like to eat anchovies, so their government sensibly exports their annual sustainable anchovy harvest in the form of fishmeal and fish oil and uses the cash to boost their economy. Environmental NGO’s nevertheless see this as a great sin and campaign endlessly against it, conveniently forgetting that the same products find their way into pet food, which they will never criticise for fear of alienating their pet-loving supporters.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on Scotland’s salmon farming sector, with the worldwide lockdown and closure of pubs and restaurants delivering a dramatic blow to overseas sales, although the domestic market for salmon has remained strong. Throughout the crisis, workers in the sector have toiled flat out to keep supplies moving and to deliver healthy, fresh salmon to our shops and supermarkets. Instead of the constant stream of criticism, Scotland should be proud of its fish farms, proud of the revenue they provide for our economy and the jobs they create and proud of the high quality, healthy high-protein food they produce. It is time for the critics to pipe down.